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Wind debate bigger than Goodhue County

The ongoing wind farm dispute in Goodhue county has obscured the announced startup for Minnesota’s newest wind farm near Lakefield. What is unusual about this 205 megawatt project is that none of its output will be used in Minnesota: It is intended entirely for Indianapolis Power and Light.

It will help IPL meet Indiana’s mandated renewable energy standard that at least 10 percent of IPL’s fuel source comes from wind, solar, or biomass by 2017. That’s much less than Minnesota Legislature’s demand that Xcel Energy get 25 percent from wind and solar by 2020.

At the 27 percent U.S. average capacity factor for intermittent output wind farms, the effective power of this project would be about 55 MW or one-twentieth that of Minnesota’s Prairie Island nuclear plant. The develpor, EnXco, has not disclosed the cost of this ratepayer-and-taxpayer-subsidized project, but similar developments are in the $400-500 million range. EnXco, owned by the French, can receive 30 percent of the project’s total cost upfront from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Midwest System Operator grid will actually receive the power for transmission to Indiana. MISO or IPL will need additional backup power, probably from a natural gas plant, to supply IPL when the Lakefield wind farm isn’t producing.

Intermittent energy wind farms everywhere have created demand for additional natural gas peaker plants. These plants are kept in spinning reserve to respond rapidly during the 75 percent of the time when the wind is too light or too strong for the wind turbines to function at capacity.

IPL also has not disclosed the price it is paying for the energy from the wind farm owner, but these power purchase contracts, forced by renewable energy legislation, are typically above the current market rate for electric power.

Large electric grids maintain a constant balance with control room operators adjusting supply to meet continuing changes in power demand. Wind turbines turn themselves on and off, depending on the vagaries of the wind. As a result, wind farms have not replaced a fossil fueled power plant anywhere on earth, nor do they reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This suggests that DOE funds should be spent for wind energy research at facilities like the University of Minnesota’s Eolos Wind Research Station at UMore Park in Rosemount.

In England, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, has launched a withering assault on the wind turbine industry, calling England’s wind farms “a disgrace.” He also criticized the industry’s reliance on subsidies from low- and average-income electricity customers, as he accused people who support them of believing in a “fairy tale.”

A recent Sunday Telegraph audit of Britain’s 3,419 turbines reveals 2,276 are either fully or partly-owned by foreign businesses, and they receive $800 million a year in subsidies.

In 2010, Bentek Energy, a Colorado-based energy analytics firm, looked at power plant records in Colorado and Texas. Bentek concluded that despite large investments, wind-generated electricity “has had minimal, if any, impact on carbon dioxide” emissions.

The Minnesota Legislature, Congress, and the Obama administration are considering new renewable portfolio standards which would require more wind and solar power. But integrating these intermittent sources of energy with existing nuclear, coal and natural gas capacity produces cycling-induced emissions problems.

As Kevin Forbes, the director of the Center for the Study of Energy and Environmental Stewardship at Catholic University, said, “Wind energy gives people a nice warm fuzzy feeling that we’re taking action on climate change. Yet when it comes to CO2 emissions, the reality is that it’s not doing much of anything.”

Rolf E. Westgard is a professional member of Geological Society of America. He teaches energy classes for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program.